Art of Photography

Rob Townsend


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Exercise – Focal lengths and different viewpoints

Brief:

Find a scene that has enough space in front of it to allow a choice of viewpoint, from near to far. Start with the longest telephoto lens and make a tightly framed composition. Then walk forwards in a straight line until you can fill the frame with the same subject at the widest angle setting, and take a second shot. Compare the two.

Equipment:

Canon EOS 650D with EF 18-200mm f/3.5 lens.

Method:

I chose the fountain in the grounds of Castle Howard and followed the straightforward instructions in the brief.

Results:

The first shot was at 200mm focal length, and it had the effect of dramatically compressing the distances between parts of the image; in reality the backdrop of the house itself was as far away from the fountain as I was on the other side, but in this image it appears to be immediately behind. Similarly, the water cherubs on each side look to be adjacent while in fact they were positioned one on each corner – so the true front-to-back distance was equivalent to the left-to-right distance you can see here.

200 mm

200mm

Filling the frame with the same subject with my lens at its widest focal length of 18mm gives a very different feel. The subject has gained more depth and more closely resembles its real-life dimensions. The cherubs are clearly spaced on each corner of the fountain base, and the house has receded into the distance, allowing a backdrop of sky. The relative position, size and distances in this image are much truer to life and therefore easier to assimilate.

18 mm

18mm

What I’ve learned:

Zooming in to a long focal length has a significant effect on the perceived depth in the image; it can produce a very flat image where the all parts of the image from foreground to background seem to be very close together. Wide-angle shots, on the other hand, more strongly convey a sense of depth. The resulting pictures from these two extremes are very different in feel and character. This is something I must start to take into account when deciding the focal length to use and the viewpoint from which I want to take a picture.

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Exercise – Focal lengths

Brief:

Choose a view that is open and at the same time has some details in the distance in the middle of the frame. Take a sequence of photographs from the same viewpoint at different focal lengths by zooming and/or changing lenses.

Equipment:

Canon EOS 650D with EF 24-105mm f/4.0 L IS USM lens, EF 80-200mm f/4.0 lens, tripod.

Method:

I chose the war memorial in Nice and set up my tripod on a plinth at the opposite side of the road to take in the entire monument in the wide angle shot. Then I proceeded to first zoom in and then change lens to follow the brief.

Results:

The first shot was at the widest my lens could go, namely 24mm (actually 24mm equivalent; as the camera body has a crop factor of 1.6x). Here you can see the entire monument in context, built into the rocky hillside.

24 mm

24mm

Zooming in to a focal length of 35mm, some of the distraction (e.g. the road) is removed to focus more of the monument itself.

35 mm

35mm

At 50 mm the framing starts to go slightly off as I’ve cut off the top and bottom of the monument.

50 mm

50mm

Zoomed to 70mm the balance is a little better, as I am clearly focusing on the central part of the monument and the framing looks more deliberate.

70 mm

70mm

At 105mm I hit the limits of my main lens. This is the first shot without the context of the rocks around the monument and so focuses on the monument in isolation, a subtle but significant framing difference.

105 mm

105mm

I switched to my longer telephoto lens at this point. At 135mm the wording at the top of the monument is becoming legible, yet the dome is still visible so you still get a good feel for the shape.

135 mm

135mm

The full extent of my zoom range. At 200mm the image focuses much more on the top segment of the monument and the place names inscribed. This gives a very different feel to the picture than the wide shots with the full monument in frame.

200 mm

200mm

As a comparison, and as suggested in the brief, I took a crop of the widest shot (24mm) in the centre of the frame to compare it to the longest focal length shot (200 mm). As expected, the content of the frames are the same – albeit the lighting and sharpness are different.

24 mm centre crop

24mm centre crop

What I’ve learned:

I’ve picked up two clear lessons from this exercise. Firstly, the obvious one that changing your focal length will narrow or widen the view that you can fit in the frame. Secondly, that choosing a focal length can also mean choosing what you include and exclude in the frame, which in turn can have an effect on the message you wish to get across, and the response you are aiming to elicit from the viewer.


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Exercise – Object in different positions in the frame

Brief:

Choose a subject that is very clear in appearance and set in a large, even background. Take a baseline shot without pre-composing. Then position the subject in various parts of the frame. View the resultant pictures and rank them in order of visual appeal, observing how the subject and the background work together.

Equipment:

Canon EOS 650D with EF 24-105mm f/4.0 L IS USM lens.

Method:

As I am at the seaside at the moment, I correctly assumed that if I wandered up and down the promenade for long enough, I would see a stationary boat in a clear expanse of water. This particular vessel seemed to make the right kind of subject (with hindsight, what could have improved it would have been a boat facing the other way, as I for one seem to ‘read’ a photograph from left to right, so implied rightward movement seems more natural to my eyes).

As per the brief I took an ‘uncomposed’ shot as the benchmark, then proceeded to position the boat dead centre, lower right, close to the top edge, close to the bottom edge, and centred vertically but close to the left edge.

Results:

The starting shot, where I just pointed the camera and clicked, is below as the benchmark. It is almost, but not quite, dead centre. It’s slightly closer to the left edge, and the visual weight of the boat is left-leaning due to the white cabin at the front. I actually prefer this to my composed pictures 2-5; not because it is particularly good, more that I found greater fault with the others!

Uncomposed

Uncomposed

The specifically-composed shots follow in order of visual appeal and not in the order taken.

My clear preference is for the one below, where the boat is off-centre to the lower right. The eye seems to rest quite naturally here. The boat looks like it will move into the empty space to the left. The expanse of water above gives scale and context without distraction. It gives a sense of going on a journey.

1. Lower right

1. Lower right

I had misgivings about all the other four shots; the one I had least dislike for – and therefore default second place – was the one with the boat in the dead centre. Yes, it’s undynamic and unimaginative, but it just looks less uncomfortable to my eye than the other three.

2. Dead centre

2. Dead centre

In third place is this one with the boat centred vertically but close to the left edge. This feels like it’s pulling out of shot, fighting with the background, which to me makes it less comfortable to look at.

3. Centre left

3. Centre left

In fourth is this image with the boat close to the bottom edge but central across the frame. This to me makes the boat look ‘grounded’ and too static, in comparison with picture 1 where the horizontal placement gave the implication of movement.

4. Lower middle

4. Lower middle

The image I felt worked least well was this, where the boat is close to the top edge. It just looks very unbalanced and unnatural.

5. Upper middle

5. Upper middle

What I’ve learned:

Where you position the main subject of an image in the frame can make a significant difference to the impact it has on the viewer. While there may be no absolute right answers, it’s becoming clearer to me which executions work most comfortably and which are more jarring. This is not to say that all photos should make comfortable viewing; sometimes deliberately playing with how you think viewers will read the image will lead you to position elements in a more unconventional way.


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Exercise – Fitting the frame to the subject

Brief:

Choose a subject that is clear in appearance and compact in shape. Take four photos, (1) a general shot without any specific composition in mind, (2) filling the frame with the subject, (3) a close-up detail of part of the subject and (4) a wider shot showing the subject in context. Look at the resulting photos and experiment with different crops.

Equipment:

Canon EOS 650D with EF 24-105mm f/4.0 L IS USM lens.

Method:

The hardest part of this was finding the right subject; this was the successful one out of seven candidates, after I rejected the others mostly on the grounds of being too irregular-shaped to fill the frame properly. Anyway, once I found this postbox on a wall in the old town in Nice, I simply followed the brief.

Results:

The general shot is OK, nothing special: the subject is slap-bang in the middle of the frame, and it lacks interest and dynamism:

1. Standard view

1. Standard view

The second shot, filling the frame, gives it much more of a sense of presence and solidity; it’s clearer what the focus of the image is now:

2. Filling the frame

2. Filling the frame

The partial shot zones in on a specific detail, but it is still clear what the subject is; I think this particular detail evokes the sense of actually using the postbox, with the open slot and the arrow implying the activity of posting a letter:

3. Detail

3. Detail

The wide angle shot gives the context by revealing more of the wall and architectural features that give away that this is a postbox in an old quarter of town rather than a more contemporary urban setting:

4. Context

4. Context

The shots above are uncropped, as composed in camera. I went back to the photos and tweaked the cropping on 1 and 4 to what I thought was better in compositional terms.

For the general shot I removed some distracting elements towards the edges and straightened very slightly, and this had the effect of moving the postbox slightly off-centre, which looked more appealing that dead centre:

1. Standard view - crop

1. Standard view – crop

For the context shot, I tried a few crops; first I removed a few distracting elements towards the image edges and straightened by a couple of degrees. This to me represents a slight improvement on the generally favourable original, although the motorbike bottom right risks stealing your attention:

4. Context - crop

4. Context – crop slightly to tidy up

Then I tried a tighter crop but still in landscape format; this worked better for me, as you still get the texture and detail of the wall and window to help with the overall context, but you no longer have to decide whether to focus on the motorbike or the postbox:

4. Context - tighter crop

4. Context – tighter crop

The first of two portrait crops focuses on the position of the postbox up on the wall; I felt it started to lose something here, like it was just ‘floating’:

4. Context - portrait crop #1

4. Context – portrait crop #1

The second portrait format crop positioned the box higher in the frame, to depict its position from the pavement; this seemed more stable and ‘grounded’ to me than the previous crop, although losing the window and wall detail made it less contextually evocative:

4. Context - portrait crop #2

4. Context – portrait crop #2

What I’ve learned:

I’ve learned how to look at a potential subject from many different angles, at different focal lengths, using a greater or lesser amount of the frame to include the subject, in order to give different types of image. You can get a different message across or evoke different responses by pointing the camera at the same subject in a certain way, and using the viewfinder to select exactly what view you wish to capture. I’m reminded of the Garry Winogrand quote: “When you put four edges around some facts, you change those facts.” (date unknown).

Of the resultant pictures, I find I have a clear preference for two specific treatments here: firstly, the second (tighter) crop of number 4 where you see the postbox as a part of the wall, but without too many additional distractions; and secondly the number 2 shot that filled the frame, as here you can see the detail more clearly.